Will Smith gives first awards acceptance speech since Oscars controversy

A man with short black hair smiling in a button-down shirt and suit coat
Will Smith attends the 2022 premiere of “Emancipation” in London.
(Vianney Le Caer / Invision / AP)

Will Smith delivered his first acceptance speech since the 2022 Oscars after he received the Beacon Award on Wednesday at the African American Film Critics Assn. Awards.

While accepting the honor alongside director Antoine Fuqua for their movie, “Emancipation,” Smith thanked everyone in the “room for keeping our stories alive.” The ceremony marked the actor’s first awards show appearance since the film academy banned him from the Oscars for 10 years for slapping presenter Chris Rock onstage at the 94th Academy Awards, where Smith won the prize for lead actor.

“In this room are people who really suffer for the art to bring these stories to the screen and to deliver them in a way that has emotional impact ... and hopefully just the subtle possibility to change a heart or to change a mind,” Smith said Wednesday.

“More than anything, I want to thank my brother, Antoine Fuqua. He didn’t compromise on one shot, dog. His heart, his mind, his desire to deliver this story to all of you and to the world — I was blown away by the lengths that he was willing to make me go through to deliver this film.”


The Oscars added a ‘crisis team’ to address any unexpected incidents during the show, a year after Will Smith’s infamous onstage slap of Chris Rock.

Feb. 22, 2023

During his speech, Smith deemed “Emancipation” — based on the true story of an enslaved man who escaped a Louisiana plantation and embarked on a dangerous journey to freedom — “the most difficult film of my entire career.” He also offered a glimpse into his experience shooting the project, recalling a shocking moment in which a cast member improvised a scene and spit on him without warning.

“It’s really difficult to transport a modern mind to that time period. It’s difficult to imagine that level of inhumanity,” Smith said. “I was in a scene with one of the white actors, and ... he ad-libbed and spit in the middle of my chest. ... If I had pearls on, I definitely would’ve clutched them.”

The “King Richard” and “I Am Legend” star shared that his first instinct was to get Fuqua involved — but he resisted the urge.

Smith plays Peter, the enslaved Black man whose escape to freedom helped galvanizes the abolitionist movement, in this grueling Civil War-era action-drama from director Antoine Fuqua.

Nov. 30, 2022

“I stopped, and I realized that [my character] Peter couldn’t have called the director,” he continued. “So I sat there, and I took a deep breath, and we did take two, and the actor felt that the ad-lib had gone well. ... He does his line and spits in the middle of my chest again. And I just held in that moment. ... It makes me teary right now. There was a part of me that was grateful that I got to really understand.

“And then in the distance, I hear a voice: Antoine says, ‘Hey, let’s do a take without the spit,’” he added as the audience burst into laughter. “And I knew that God was real.”


Days before Smith attended the AAFCA Awards, he also won the NAACP Image Award for actor in a motion picture for “Emancipation.” Though he wasn’t there to accept the honor in person, Smith expressed his gratitude in a statement posted on Instagram.

“WOW!! NAACP!! I am absolutely humbled by this!!” he wrote. “I am so proud of the work we put into this film. I would like to thank the NAACP for honoring our film! ... your entire organization — and the work you do all year round — is truly important, so to be recognized by y’all — it means a lot.”